Pauli Murray: “Jane Crow”

Day 3 of the Pride 30 Project for Pride Month, 2018.

Pauli Murray — lawyer, writer, and crusader for multiple movements — is simultaneously the most important activist of the twentieth century and the most underrepresented. As historian Susan Ware observes, “it may be when historians look back on twentieth-century America, all roads will lead to Pauli Murray… [she] was involved in all the major developments historians of the United States write about when they try to make sense of the twentieth century, especially the movements for social change that have been so central to its history. Civil rights, feminism, religion, literature law, sexuality — no matter what the subject, there is Pauli Murray.”

Murray had her hand in many causes, realizing the importance of what, today, we refer to as intersectionality far ahead of her time. Consequently, she fell into the cracks between the various movements and genres she worked in and across. Our contemporary focus on intersectionality as an essential activist praxis and growing cultural awareness of transgender identities and gender nonconformity has begun to resurrect Murray from the margins to her rightful place, as Ware suggests, at the center of twentieth-century American history.

She was born Anna Pauline Murray in Baltimore, Maryland, on November 10th of 1910. Both of her parents suffered from health issues and, consequently, she was raised by her aunt and maternal grandparents in Durham, North Carolina. After graduating from Hunter College in New York City with a degree in English in 1933, Murray became involved in the Civil Rights Movement. In 1938, with the support of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), she began a campaign to enter the University of North Carolina, an all-white institution. Though Murray was not granted admission, her case received national publicity. In 1941, she enrolled in Howard University Law School and, in 1942, partnered with fellow activists George Houser, James Farmer, and Bayard Rustin to form the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), whose mission was “to bring about equality for all people regardless of race, creed, sex, age, disability, sexual orientation, religion, or ethnic background.” In 1943, Murray penned her most influential poem on civil rights entitled “Dark Testament.” In the poem, she describes the hope for a better, more just world as “a song in a weary throat” and calls for the creation of a country in which kindness, hope, and love are possible.

The only woman in her law school class, it was at Howard where Murray developed one of her most influential and prescient theories: “Jane Crow.” As she became increasingly aware of the “conjunction,” as she put it, of racism and sexism in her own life, and in the lives of other black women, Murray used the expression “Jane Crow” — alluding to “Jim Crow,” the discriminatory system of state and local laws that enforced racial segregation in the southern United States — to articulate how racial and gender-based oppressions combined to circumscribe black women’s freedom. “Black women,” said Murray, “have been doubly victimized by the twin immoralities of Jim Crow and Jane Crow… Black women, faced with these dual barriers, have often found that sex bias is more formidable than racial bias.” Her articulation of “Jane Crow” also informed her critiques of the male-dominated Civil Rights Movement. Murray argued, decades before the black feminist legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw forwarded the theory of intersectionality in 1989, that women should be foregrounded within the movement because racism and sexism must be battled in tandem.

Murray graduated at the top of her law school class in 1944 and, typically, men who had done the same were given Julius Rosenwald Fellowships for graduate study at Harvard University. Murray was awarded the fellowship, but rejected by Harvard because, at that time, they did not admit women. In her response to the “powers that be” at Harvard, Murray noted, “I would gladly change my sex to meet your requirements, but since the way to such change has not been revealed to me, I have no recourse but to appeal to you to change your minds. Are you to tell me that one is as difficult as the other?” Murray’s comments about changing her sex, while on the surface using humor to jab at Harvard’s discriminatory policy, were perhaps indicative of a deeper, life-long struggle with her sexual orientation and gender identity.

Although she was aware of the term “homosexual,” she described herself as having an “inverted sex instinct.” Murray, perhaps, did not embrace the identity of “homosexual” or “lesbian” because she embodied a more complex truth, noting that though she sexually and romantically desired women, she was attracted to them in the way a man would be. During the 1940s, she unsuccessfully sought hormone treatments as a way to masculinize herself and to correct what she saw as a gender imbalance. Scholars such as Rosalind Rosenberg have suggested Murray’s notion that she possessed an “inverted sex instinct” corresponds to our modern understanding of transgender identity, though Murray would not have had access to such terminology — and therefore the ability to articulate and embody such a sense of self — during her life. The concept of “changing sex” through hormones and surgery was not widely known until the publication of endocrinologist Harry Benjamin’s 1966 book The Transsexual Phenomenon, which outlined an affirmative path of care for gender variant individuals.

Murray, similarly, did not outwardly claim the identity of “lesbian” though her articulation of her sexuality, at times, falls within our twentieth-century understanding of lesbianism. Remarking on her marriage as a teenager, she realized that “when men try to make love to me, something in me fights.” In regarding Murray’s sexuality and gender from our present vantage point, we must avoid what historians refer to as “presentism,” or, an uncritical interpretation of past events in light of modern concepts and values. Murray, perhaps, did not more publicly articulate her “inverted sex instinct” and feelings of what today we would recognize as gender dysphoria because there existed no movement through which to do so. Though trans and gender nonconforming people of color played a fundamental role in the Stonewall Inn Riots of 1969 that helped to radicalize the tone and tempo of the American Gay Rights Movement, their concerns were soon pushed to the margins by emergent gay rights organizations who pursued an agenda of inclusion for some over liberation for all.

Murray’s activism makes clear that, at times, she did strongly relate to being a woman. Along with Betty Friedan, Shirley Chisholm, and 25 other women, she was one of the co-founders of the National Organization for Women (NOW). NOW was founded in Washington, D.C. in June of 1966 at the Third National Conference of Commissions on the Status of Women, in part, over women’s frustration that gender discrimination provisions established by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were not being adequately enforced. Murray, in partnership with Friedan, wrote NOW’s Statement of Purpose at an organizing conference held in Washington, D.C. in October of 1966.

The statement described the purpose of NOW as “to take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, exercising all the privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men.” Murray’s notion of “Jane Crow” was not explicitly incorporated within NOW’s mission, which made only a nod to the organization’s belief that the U.S. Constitution should be used to ensure the civil rights of “Negroes and other deprived groups” in addition to women. Though Murray was ready to tackle the oppressions of sexism and racism simultaneously, 1966 was not yet the time for the emergence of the multifaceted social movement she thought necessary based on the marginalized positions she occupied. Despite its lack of an intersectional analysis of oppression, however, NOW played a significant role in jump-starting the second wave Feminist Movement in the United States.

“Jane Crow” helped to further bring about gender equality when, in 1971, future Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, then a rising legal star, named Murray as co-author of her brief for the Supreme Court case Reed v. Reed, a key legal victory that extended the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause to women. Though Murray did not directly author the brief, she was the first legal scholar to argue the Equal Protection Clause should treat gender-based discrimination in the same way it did racial inequity. Ginsburg rightly credited Murray as the inspiration behind her legal strategy in the Reed case.

Murray was also a prolific writer and academic, valuing the power of the written word to provoke change. Her 1950 book States’ Laws on Race and Color, an analysis of racial segregation laws, was cited by future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall as the “bible of the Civil Rights Movement.” She also wrote two works of autobiography — Proud Shoes: The Story Of An American Family, published in 1956, and Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage, published after her death in 1987 — and a collection of poetry entitled Dark Testament in addition to numerous other essays and speeches. “One person plus one typewriter constitutes a movement,” she argued.

Murray taught at Brandeis University from 1968 to 1973, where she achieved tenure as a professor of American Studies, and introduced the university’s first courses in African American Studies and Women’s Studies. In 1977, she became the first black woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest. She died in July of 1985 from pancreatic cancer. Her wide-ranging career as a human rights champion reminds us to be vigilant of, in the words of writer and activist Janet Mock, those who “dangerously fall in between the cracks of racial justice, feminist, and LGbt* movements.” Murray, herself, was ever aware of the dangers the attempted fragmentation of queer black women’s identities pose to our collective liberation.

“I hold the status of several minorities,” she said. “I cannot allow myself to be fragmented into Negro at one time, woman at another, or worker at another.”

*Mock intentionally writes the LGBT initialism as “LGbt” to emphasize the fact that lesbian and gay identities are often privileged over other gender and sexual minorities, namely transgender and gender nonconforming people of color.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Jeffry J. Iovannone

Jeffry J. Iovannone

Historian, writer, and educator with a PhD in American Studies. I specialize in gender and LGBTQ history of the U.S. Email: